How to Make Your Story Shine

“People fascinate me. Their bodies. Their brains, their emotions, their ideals, their histories, their choices, and their dreams. Their stories. It all comes back to stories. Everything everywhere is ultimately a story.”

— Victoria Erickson

As I sat with change in my personal life over the summer, I suddenly felt holes in my values of service and contribution to the lives of others after having closed my writers’ group, The Literati Writers, in April. The brief hiatus, still ongoing but drawing to a close, was needed to evolve my online writing community to better serve writers in the future.

I was saved in part after one random inquiry from a friend led me into a new spate of work, which I instantly grew to love.

I began helping life coaches and health coaches attract new business through the simple power of storytelling on their About Me pages, Work With me pages and professional biographies.

More and more, new prospective clients emerged, inquiring if I could help them make their stories shine with nothing more than words.

Using tried-and-true techniques that I’ve learned over five years’ of writing online and a storyteller’s own intuition, I worked with a dozen clients this summer, finessing personal anecdotes and professional résumés into shining examples of skill, talent, intelligence and ability–all through the organic and refreshingly humane technique of telling a good, honest story.

I’m a huge fan of storytelling. Understanding what a story is changed my entire outlook on marketing, business, self-promotion, branding and advertising.

As Victoria Erickson said above, “It all comes back to stories.”

Storytelling is the most fundamental form of marketing, and an effortless, organic method of inviting people to care about who you are and what you do.

That’s because “story” just means placing context and meaning around otherwise random facts, details and ideas.

By stringing those words together effectively, a story emerges allows a reader to answer these vital questions…

  • Who is this person?
  • What is he or she doing, and why?
  • How does that matter to me?
  • Where has he or she been, up to today?
  • How has that personal/professional history shaped him or her?
  • Where is he or she going next in his/her work?
  • How can I get on board with him or her to be a part of what comes next?

Whether or not you’re a coach or entrepreneur, good storytelling answers others’ questions before they’re even asked. Good storytelling satiates the natural human desire that we all have to understand Who, what, where, when, why? when we meet someone new. It comes hand-in-hand with every new connection, handshake or Hello. 

We tell stories because we need context.

Our brains yearn for understanding, relation, relevance. Without them, we simply don’t care. Think of what you exchange when you meet someone new:

  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What do you do for work?

These basic markers help our brains identify and relate to this new human being.

Online, effective storytelling is all the more important.

The digital sphere is impersonal. This medium of communication and connection is literally inhuman. There’s a natural sense of distance and disconnect through the computer screen. The lens ingrains a sense of distrust and (oftentimes, healthy) skepticism. We know we aren’t really seeing people. We know we’re seeing some fractal, unreal representation of them. But we cannot even say for certain if the faces we see and the names used are real human beings or fake. We could well be deceived, we must always caution ourselves.

The computer screen stirs an innate feeling of skepticism and distrust from the start.

And that’s why honest, authentic, even vulnerable storytelling is so make-or-break for those who depend on their words to do their work online–especially writers, coaches, creatives and self-employed entrepreneurs.

A good, honest, genuine story can mean inviting new business to knock on your door, all through opening up to tell your own experiences, beliefs and intentions.

Today, I want to help you make your story shine.

Your words carry weight, my friend. Gravity. Power.

And how you thread those words into the stories that you tell can and will change, well, just about everything.

How you tell your story story can help you…

  1. Get to know yourself better. In a story, you thread together moments of your past and learn to better understand your present.
  2. Take power back from your past. Whether hardship, heartbreak, or unjust circumstance, the more you tell your story, the more you claim ownership over it.
  3. Reclaim your confidence. Tell your story with overtones of dedicated self-love and knit yourself into a state of peace, poise and confidence.
  4. Invite new people into your life. What you share is what people hear. When you open up and stop hiding who you really are, you usher in new connections to new souls.
  5. Change how the same people see you. What pieces of you have you hidden from those who know you best? Speak your truth, and those who know you best will see you in new ways.
  6. Reshape your life’s direction. What you tell in your story shapes your future. Retell your story, reshape your direction. It’s not magic.

Today, I’m framing these storytelling strategies into the perspective of a coach or entrepreneur who’s writing online, but you really don’t need to share your story in an About Me page to learn how to tell your story better. Many principles remain the same, whether you’re a self-employed entrepreneur or not.

And, if you would like more of a personalized approach to helping your story shine on your website, email me about potentially working together. I have a few client slots available before the end of 2014.

Without further ado, let’s make your story shine.

Step 1) First Considerations

Get Clear Before You Start

The purpose of your story will shape how you tell it long before you begin writing.

First, let’s determine what the purpose of this story is.

— What are you starting with? 

Are you starting fresh, or working off an older version of your story, or making your way through a new draft? I recommend starting fresh, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve told your story. This is because as you change, your story changes. And how you tell it today will be far different from how you’ve told it in the past.

Most of the time with a client, I’ll work off of a recent draft that he or she has  started re-writing. This way, the story is fresher, more raw and current than a past edition.

— Where will this story be shared?

The story you write for your About Me page won’t translate as a pruned down 100-word professional bio, or even a conversational intro when meeting someone new. That’s because your story shifts and changes according to where it is shared, spoken or offered. The fabric of a story changes in accord with who is listening or reading. It has to.

Consider how you tell the same story to your grandmother, as opposed to your best friend. You change the telling according to who is listening. So, where will your story be shared?

— What are your goals with this story? 

What are you hoping to convey? Are you hoping to create a personal, emotional bond through your words? Would you like your story to do some “work” on your behalf by sharing where you’ve been, who you are, what you believe and where you’re heading in your life (and work)?

More specifically, what do you want someone to do after experiencing your story? Smile, explore more of your work, sign up for your email list, email you personally, schedule a free sampler coaching call?

Step 2) Remember: This is What Your Story is Actually Does

Important Reminders Before You Begin

Regardless of what you’re writing, where it’s shared and what your goals are, every story does these things:

— Gives Context. 

Don’t assume someone knows who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done or accomplished. If you don’t say it, they won’t learn it. A story gives context. Your goal will be to frame who you are today (and what you’re doing in your life, work, etc.) through details and examples of where you’ve been and what you’ve done in the past.

Where flipping burgers as a 15-year-old might be omitted from your professional résumé, included in your story it becomes a vivid and potentially powerful example of how you first learned about customer service.

— Creates Relevance. 

Telling your story is not about boasting, bragging or touting your awesomeness. You have to share who you are, where you’ve been and what you’re doing so that the person who’s experiencing your story can see or feel themselves through you. What you share and how you share it allows someone to connect on a guttural, emotional level through empathy.

You might pooh-pooh the relevance of your divorce from over a decade ago, but if that heartbreak meant you changed your entire life’s direction for the better–and you would never be here today without it–tell me, is that not a vital detail in your story?

— Offers Understanding. 

You’re telling your story so that the reader can see and feel themselves through you, your experiences, your beliefs and your dreams. But you also want to communicate a deep understanding of the reader, as if you know him or her very, very well.

Say you’ve had a history of depression or an eating disorder, and your story is geared towards helping someone in a similar place. What might you say to help him or her feel less alone–to make the reader feel understood, finally?

These next three examples of what a story does is particularly important when you are intent on using your story for a purpose bigger than yourself. You may be looking for an authentic, humane method of “marketing” and self-promotion that doesn’t feel grossly commercial or deceptive. You may be building up a platform as a writer or artist, or founding a nonprofit, or doing something of service.

If you wish to help others feel more connected, less alone and more hopeful, your story also:

— Builds Trust. 

You need to get raw, real and deeply personal to overcome the gap of the medium that you’re working with: digital. In other words, if you meet someone face to face, they can judge a lot about you based on your voice, tone, mannerisms, body language, and energetic/vibrational levels. Online, we’re impersonal.

With storytelling online, you need to overcome the natural disadvantage of emotional disconnect by really sharing your truth, your hardships, your beliefs, your soul.

Then, you may have earned yourself some trust.

— Shows that You are Leading by Example. 

You’re trying to convince someone who doesn’t know you of what you want, what you believe and what you’re doing to make it happen. Prove it. Just how far are you going to show that you’re the one in front of this cause, this idea, your belief, your desire? Are you owning what you say you want, or merely dancing around it?

— Makes Yourself Vulnerable.

This advice is the biggest stumbling block for everyone I have ever worked with in the realm of storytelling, right from the start. Our minds play tricks on us when we hear advice that says to get vulnerable–the brain’s reaction is to feel threatened, at-risk and like we are voluntarily exposing ourselves to inherent danger. The brain says, flee.

Even conventional thought (on a résumé or in some form of a “professional” arena) would say that making yourself “vulnerable” means you look weak, flawed, and thus, unprofessional (or incapable, or without ability, or lacking by comparison to others).

It’s simply not true. A defense mechanism.

The will of the fear-bound mind, not the ferocious determination of heart-led soul.

A teacher, a leader, one who charges oneself to help and serve others is bound by the duty to put oneself before the pack. In storytelling, that means exposing yourself for who you really are, flaws and all.

If you wish to help people live better and in the ways you claim to be able to help them, the very least you can do is offer up slices of your story that show to them that you are putting yourself out there. Don’t ask someone to risk on your behalf if you aren’t risking even more, yourself.

It’s human to be vulnerable, because that’s how we live from a place of love, compassion and service.

Though it feels uncomfortable to willfully “expose” yourself, it speaks a world about your character.

The trick is to speak your truth without shame and fear, but poise, grace, confidence and unwavering self-belief.

Step 3) Write It!

Use My Tried-and-True 4-Step Formula to Guide You

From Rhode Island to to Berlin, Germany with stops in Austin, Texas, Amsterdam and Brussels in between, this four-part formula is the exact formula that I use to teach my writing workshop attendees and clients how to craft an effective About Me page or 100-word bio.

This four-part method is one that I’ve learned and used myself, time and time again, over years of online writing. The purpose for this formula is to use storytelling to…

  • Present who you are (answering the ever-important facts, up front),
  • Show where you’ve been (including your credentials, background, context, etc.)
  • Explain where you intend to go in your work/in your life (ie, this is what you’re driving at, and why you’re doing anything at all)
  • Invite the reader to join you, get on board, work with you, etc. (in other words, how to continue the relationship you’ve sparked)

I’ll include a one- to two-sentence example that would be ideal for a short professional bio for each of the four parts, below.

PART ONE: WHO YOU ARE

What to say: “This is who I am.”

Present tense. State who you are and what are you do, in the simplest and most direct of terms. What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?

How to say it: Reveal Who You Are, Right Now.

Key word, “reveal.” Show me your face. Open up. Don’t wait ’til the end to say something meaningful. If you had only seconds to capture my attention and allow me to see your truth, what would you say?

A One-Sentence Example:

Jane Smith (RYT-500) is a Prana Flow ® instructor and teacher of living “deliciously well” on and off the yoga mat.

PART TWO: WHERE YOU’VE BEEN

What to say: “This is where I’ve been.”

Past tense. What’s your story? What brought you here? Get personal. Is there a challenge, hardship or struggle that you’ve overcome? Tell me how it (directly or indirectly) guided you more towards getting here, today.

How to say it: Convey that You Are, Indeed, Human.

Don’t be afraid to tell your story. Reveal 2-3 key pieces of your personal/professional background that have led you here today. Your story provides context, understanding and relevance. Make them feel themselves through you.

A One-Sentence Example:

A mother of three yogis-in-training, Jane once called the culinary arts her passion. She is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and a former Sous Chef at four award-winning restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island.

PART THREE: WHERE YOU’RE GOING

What to say: “This is where I am going.”

Future tense. What do you believe in? Why are you doing all of this? This is where you really blow the doors off “the why” that motivates and drives you. Why do you do what you do? You’re starting to tie your story together.

How to say it: Share What You Offer, and Why You Offer It.

How have your experiences and your background led you to what you’re doing today? Why do you believe what you believe, and how does that shape what you do?

A One-Sentence Example:

As a yoga teacher, today Jane infuses her culinary past and love of healing the body from the inside-out by preparing nutritive, organic and satisfying yoga experiences for her students.

PART FOUR: CALL-TO-ACTION

What to say: “This is how (and why) you get on board.”

Present tense. Melt your “why” into restating what you’re doing today. Do so in a way that invokes a strong response or “want” for your reader to further engage you, your story or what you’re offering them.

How to say it: Present a Compelling Call-to-Action.

Invite your visitors to become a part of your mission. Entice them. Place the opportunity, invitation or call-to-action on display. Don’t hide it! Tell them you want them to join you, work with you, keep connected to you.

A One-Sentence Example:

Jane teaches at studios throughout Southern New England and available to provide savory yoga sessions for your studio’s health-conscious clients at JaneSmithYoga.com.

Altogether, this 100-Word Professional Bio would read…

Jane Smith (RYT-500) is a Prana Flow ® instructor and teacher of living “deliciously well” on and off the yoga mat. A mother of three yogis-in-training, Jane once called the culinary arts her passion. She is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and a former Sous Chef at four award-winning restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island. As a yoga teacher, today Jane infuses her culinary past and love of healing the body from the inside-out by preparing nutritive, organic and satisfying yoga experiences for her students. Jane teaches at studios throughout Southern New England and available to provide savory yoga sessions for your studio’s health-conscious clients at JaneSmithYoga.com.

But what if that bio were in the first-person narrative, not the third person? 

Using my own advice, I’ll modify as if I were Jane Smith:

Hi, my name is Jane Smith, and I’m a 500-hour certified yoga teacher who helps health-conscious parents live “deliciously well” on and off the yoga mat. I’m a mom of three little yogis-in-training, and used to call the culinary arts my passion—hence the whole “live deliciously well” thing! As a former Sous Chef and a yoga teacher, I love to help people heal their bodies from the inside, out. My yoga classes are all designed to feel nourishing and I like to weave nutritional facts into my teachings—I even use culinary talk and food analogies in how I queue my yoga students in their practices. I believe that being truly healthy is a matter of integrating these facets of our lives together, and hope to be a part of that.

In an About Page format, each of these four points would embody between one to three paragraphs:

  • Part One: 1-2 Paragraphs. Edge on the side of 1. You should be able to say who you are in four sentences or less. State it up front, in earnest, and directly. Don’t dance around the facts.
  • Part Two: 2-4 Paragraphs. Don’t be overly long-winded, but your personal and professional history will take more time to explain–and, after all, this is the very context of why you’re here and why you’re doing what you’re doing, and thus, why I’m reading, and why I should care at all.
  • Part Three: 2-3 Paragraphs. Don’t short yourself now. It’s time to explain where you’re going and how you’re getting there (through the work that you do, what you offer and how you offer it, etc.). Bring home the context of your background by showing how it relates to what you’re doing now.
  • Part Four: 1-2 Paragraphs. Clearly distinguish how I can get on board. What is the one manner in which you want this reader to “join you”? Don’t present 15 options, keep it simple, streamlined and effective. Less is more.

Now, give it a shot for yourself.

Write your first draft, and take your time with it.

We’ll get into how to edit and what to look for below.

Step 4) Leave Out These Disclaimers

It’s Not Humility, It’s Shame.

Above I mentioned how important it was to make yourself vulnerable.

There’s a difference between opening up and offering your deepest, most soulful sense of self to readers and reeking of shame, guilt, fear and uncertainty. The former shows your strength, confidence and determination–in spite of the fact that you’re imperfect, flawed, and human. The latter instills distrust, skepticism and usually invites a quickly dismissive response from readers.

Here’s the difference.

VULNERABILITY: The essence of which is love, compassion, empathy, humanity.

SHAME: Energetically, our third chakra (Manipura or solar plexus chakra) is where our sense of self and identity manifest, and the shadow of Self is shame. When we feel like we lack a strong sense of self (pride, identity, fire/determination, etc.), we feel ashamed of who we are. With storytelling, the overwhelming majority of people I’ve worked with express worry that they’ll sound too braggy or egotistical when talking about themselves. In truth, they’re actually experiencing a sense of shame, not pride.

Disclaimer #1) That you’re imperfect.

A disclaimer like, “Although I’m still a work-in-progress like anyone else,” does not offer humility and grace like you might think it does. This is a crack in the door that whispers of shame. Leave out mentions of your imperfections in phrases like “I’m a work-in-progress,” even when you frame them positively (i.e. “I’m perfectly imperfect”) or poetically  (i.e. “My life is one full of beautiful flaws”).

The “work-in-progress” disclaimer only feeds your shame and undermines the strength and trust in the relationship that you are attempting to create with your reader.

Disclaimer #2) Admitting unknowns.

No one is reading your words because he or she is curious to learn what you don’t know. Let us see what you do know.

Disclaimer #3) Offering bewilderment

“I’m not sure how I found the path that I’m on today,” or “How did we get here? Well, that’s an interesting tale.” It’s not a sign of endearment. It’s throat-clearing. It shows that you’re still trying to figure out what to say and how to say it. Rather than time-wasting, delete the bewilderment and get into the heart of what you need to say–because that’s what the reader wants and needs to hear.

Step 5) Edit and Revise

Look for These Common First-Draftisms.

Read back what you’ve written now, and check for these three common first-draftisms.

Edit #1) Remove unknowns, unsureness, admissions. 

Are there any mentions of “unknowns” or phrases that allude to unsureness about your story, path, direction, purpose?

These tend to drip out in first drafts of our stories, because at first we’re using the very act of writing our story to try to make sense of the facts and details in the story, itself. If we don’t have an understanding of how our stories piece together, it will show in how you tell your story: riddled with unknowns, admissions, and spending precious words sharing what you “don’t” know.

Edit and revise now to remove doubts and unknowns. When you speak your story with conviction, you help me believe in your humanity, your truth, your soul–not because you’re right or “have it all figured out,” because I trust that you’re doing your best (because I am, too).

Edit #2) If it can be left unsaid, don’t say it. 

Parse down paragraphs that are redundant, or unnecessarily long.

We don’t need to know about your relationship to your dog multiple times, unless your story is meant to be about your dog.

Edit #3) Don’t waste words on who you’re not. 

Use your words on who you are.

Step 6) Share with a Few Trusted Peers

Be Selective With Who You Ask

By a few, I mean 2 or 3. Less is more, because we want quality opinions, not a broad range of perspectives.

But don’t just invite anyone to read and review your story. Here’s who I recommend…

— Don’t invite family for feedback.

Parents, siblings, aunts and uncles (I can’t speak to spouses, but I have a feeling this *is* the except to my rule). I’m a family guy too, but family members have a vested interest in (primarily) your protection, safeguarding and well-being. That means they are likely to read the personal or vulnerable elements of your story negatively, usually saying that you’re risking the appearance of someone who is “too open” or “unprofessional.”

In reality, they just want to protect you. Which is good. Which is why you don’t need their feedback right now.

— Look toward peers who share a similar line of work.

Because you know that you already share a similar head-space/heart-space. They’ll see your story through the right perspectives.

— Tap peers who you’re friends with, but who each know you in their own way. 

We’re not talking a 10-year friend from college, or someone who’s only gotten to know you through a group social dynamic. Ask someone who you have a personal relationship with, a specific and intimate rapport.

— Don’t ask for a certain number of feedback points. 

In other words, don’t ask for 10, 15, 20 things to change. Because that’s annoying. And because they’ll manufacture more feedback than is necessary (see below for more on this idea).

— Ask a few literal questions for him/her to answer, in addition to their own ideas. 

In other words, present 2-3 specific questions that you want to discover from your peers like, “Does this sound like me?” and “Is there anything that you know about me/my story that I left out but should include?”

9) Integrate (and Discard) Feedback

Take a Few Points, Throw Out the Rest.

What do you do with your feedback?

— First, read it all entirely, and then read it all again. 

Detach yourself from the feedback. You’re not being judged here, it’s the story that’s being observed and critiqued.

Of course, the story is about you–just distance yourself from feeling like the you behind the story is the one being judged here. This is about the story you’re sharing.

— Identify glaring omissions, errors, points of confusion–and remedy them immediately.

Simple enough, right? Fix what’s broken first, make proper grammatical changes and any points of confusion that your peers have helped you identify.

— Discard most of the feedback you’ve been given.

Throw out plenty of it. Why? Well, not to insult your peers who offered you help, that’s for sure. But, you were asking for feedback, so most points of feedback that you’ve received are likely to have been manufactured, not innate responses or obvious flaws.

You’re going to receive many suggestions that aren’t intuitive or slap-you-in-the-head noticeable mistakes. When you’re inviting someone to come up with a list of feedback, towards the end of that list the suggestions may get really nit-picky, matter-of-opinion or otherwise unimportant.

— Consider and integrate a few key gems.

What are the most important aspects of the feedback you received? How will those changes help your goals? How? Is it just a matter of someone’s personal opinion, or can you see your core readership/potential clients feeling the same way?

The big changes to make are usually getting more concrete and specific about your past/background, how someone can get involved with you (really simply and specifically), and your working methods.

10) Publish It

After All, That’s the Whole Point!

You’ve come this far, and now it tends to get a little scary. That’s because it’s time to share your story.

The whole point of masterfully crafting this story is so that people can experience it. And relate to it. And maybe even react to it.

Whether the reaction is personal and internal, or prompts someone to reach out and connect with you, you will be doing your job as a storyteller: empowering a fellow human being, no different than you, to feel and experience through you.

If You Need More Help

A Suggested Course, and How to Get In Touch With Me

Phew, well, that was a mouthful. But perhaps you need some more help and support with your storytelling.

If so, I’ve got two options to help keep you covered.

First, my friend Michael Margolis has a brand new storytelling course, Undeniable Story, debuting today. It’s an 8-week e-course that is the distillation of Michael’s 12 years at the cutting edge of what makes for a transformational story.

I’m not an affiliate or receiving any commission on this referral–I just can’t sing the praises of Michael and his work enough. Michael is a personal friend who I’ve learned from for years, dating back to our respective days living in the East Village of New York City (just a few blocks away from one another). I’ve had the privilege to check out Undeniable Story and can tell you that it is utterly comprehensive, deep and incredibly educational.

Second, I have some Story Shine slots available by the end of 2014 for new clients on a first-come, first-served basis.

I’m happy to have given you an epic ton of information in this piece, but perhaps you need more of a personal touch. Maybe you want someone like me to take the reigns and help you make your story shine, hand-in-hand.

Email me at hello@daveursillo.com if you’re interested in working together on your About Me page, Work With Me page or a related storytelling project. I have a few client slots available before the end of 2014, and would love to help you achieve your goals.

Until next time, keep living the story you want to be telling!

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